What North Korea Wants

WHAT NORTH KOREA WANTS….Selig Harrison, who has spent a fair amount of time talking with North Korean officials, argues that their nuclear test on Monday was basically just a dramatic way of getting our attention:

Paradoxical as it may seem, Pyongyang staged the test as a last-ditch effort to jump-start a bilateral dialogue on the normalization of relations that the United States has so far spurned. Over and over, I was told that Pyongyang wants bilateral negotiations to set the stage for implementation of the denuclearization agreement it concluded in Beijing on Sept. 19, 2005, with the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Washington focuses on Article One of the accord, in which North Korea agreed to “abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” But what made the agreement acceptable to Pyongyang was the pledge in Article Two that the United States and North Korea would “respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together and take steps to normalize relations.”

In North Korean eyes, it was a flagrant violation when, four days after the agreement was signed, the United States in effect declared economic war on the Kim Jong Il regime. The Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions designed to cut off North Korean access to the international banking system, branding it a “criminal state” guilty of counterfeiting and money laundering.

Well, if we were in their position, we’d feel double-crossed too, wouldn’t we? Far from being the hare-brained response of a bunch of “madmen,” their feeling of betrayal was actually a pretty unsurprising reaction. Kim Jong-Il may be a weird guy, and the whole DPRK leadership is paranoid as hell, but within the constraints of how police states usually act, they actually seem to behave fairly predictably.

Of course, the part I’ve never really understood is our reluctance to give them the one thing they’ve consistently asked for over many decades: diplomatic recognition and some kind of security guarantee. After all, what’s the downside? Treaty or not, if North Korea provoked a war we’d declare them in default of their obligations and then squash them. Recognition and security guarantees literally cost us nothing.

But ten consecutive presidents of both parties have declined to offer this, so there must be more to it. But what?